The Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg, Russia

Kunstkamera of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg

Kunstkamera of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg

In the first decades of the eighteenth century, to win a war with Sweden and present Russia as a modern European state, Tsar Peter the Great radically reformed the culture of Muscovite Russia. Besides introducing European dress (smock coats were in and beards were out) and European institutions (a government bureaucracy, a western-styled army and navy), Peter founded a new capital city, St. Petersburg, which was intended to be Russia’s “window on the west.” Peter also imported learned men from France, Switzerland and the Germanies to teach the Russians the new science. Completed in 1727, the Kunstkamera was built on Vasilevskii Island to the north of the city to house the Tsar’s new Imperial Academy of Sciences, which opened shortly after his death in 1725. Designed by Georg Johann Mattarnovy, the European building was baroque in style, and presented a radical contrast to the onion domes typical of Moscow and Russian tradition. The academicians housed inside were also intended to display Europeanness to the Muscovites. Early professors such as the French astronomer Joseph Delisle and Swiss mathematicians Daniel Bernoulli and Leonhard Euler made important contributions to a host of scientific, geographical and mathematical enterprises. But they also served local Russians as role models for appropriate behaviour in Peter’s new Russia. Russians should learn from the polite discourse which academicians were supposed to engage in during public meetings (in fact they argued a lot and had to be hidden from public view). After a precarious start, the Academy blossomed in the reign of Empress Catherine II and remained a profoundly influential center for Russian, and later Soviet science through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Today, the Kunstkamera, whose name is taken from the German Kunstkammer, or “cabinet of art” or curiosities, stands monumentally on the banks of the river Neva, and is home to an ethnographic and anthropological museum and an exhibition on the “first Russian scientist” Mikhail Vasil’evich Lomonosov. The bright blue and white painted façade is peeling and the building is time-worn, having seen numerous episodes of decline and restoration in its three-hundred year history. In its original form, the Kunstkamera was a remarkable scientific building, composed of extensive natural history collections housed in the west wing and a very fine library in the east. The central tower included an anatomy theatre, an elegant meeting room for the academicians, and Delisle’s multi-tiered astronomical observatory. Grand public dissections of elephants and other large fauna took place before fascinated audiences inside the anatomy theatre. The space of the anatomy theatre now houses various objects from Peter the Great’s peculiar collections, including teeth drawn by the Tsar himself and the famous monstrous births preserved and decorated by the Dutch anatomist Friedrich Ruysch. Originally intended to stand as momento mori and persuade superstitious Muscovites of the natural causes behind human deformities, the Ruysch exhibits now equally astonish and disconcert tourists and visitors who still come from far and wide to see them. The Kunstkamera is also home to some ageing but fascinating anthropological exhibits. Dummies dressed in ethnic costumes stand in the galleries above the anatomy theatre and look down on Peter’s monsters. Cabinets filled with costumes and utensils of nations from around the world populate a long series of dimly-lit halls. In a city focused on Europe these exhibits remind you of the incredible diversity of peoples and cultures which make up the Eurasian continent. Above the anatomy theatre, in the observatory, you can glimpse another world in one of Peter’s wonders, the Great Globe of Gottorp, a three-meter wide celestial globe, originally given to Peter as a present in 1717. It’s so big that Peter used to entertain diplomats and guests inside it, seating them on a circular bench around a table, as the heavens turned about their heads. Burnt in a fire and restored by the Soviets, the globe still impresses. Finally, in the heart of the Kunstkamera lies the Lomonosov museum, established in 1949 and dedicated to the first Russian to practice modern science, as professor of chemistry at the Academy of Sciences from 1745 until his death twenty years later. Lomonosov has long been eulogized for his great learning in Russia. Pushkin said “He founded our first university. To put it better, he was our first university.” The Soviets adored Lomonosov as the founder of science in Russia, without which scientific Marxism could not have flourished. The museum exhibits include a variety of instruments and artifacts from Lomonosov’s scientific career. The Kunstkamera, then, is a museum that literally encompasses the world. It’s a fascinating blend of old and new, of east and west, of opulence and decay. And it’s the perfect place to begin appreciating the diversity of roles that science has played in Russia’s remarkable history.

Further Reading

Oleg Neverov, ‘‘His Majesty’s Cabinet’ and Peter I’s Kuntskammer.’ in The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe. eds. Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985): 54-61.

Robert Collis, ‪The Petrine Instauration: Religion, Esotericism and Science at the Court of Peter the Great, 1689-1725 (Leiden: Brill, 2011).


Address: 3, University Embankment (Universitetskaia naberezhnaia 3), Vasilevskii Island, 199034 Saint Petersburg, Russia


Rosalind Franklin’s Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

The Eagle Pub, Cambridge

The Eagle Pub, Cambridge

In 1952 Rosalind Franklin stared down upon her successful X-ray crystallography photo of DNA, unveiling for the first time the molecule’s double-helix structure. Franklin’s photo, the infamous Photography 51, quickly found itself in the hands of her colleague Maurice Wilkins, who passed it on to James Watson and Francis Crick. Unaware of this ‘sharing’ of the image, Franklin would support and applaud the pair when they announced their discovery of the structure of DNA in the Eagle pub in Cambridge. Dying at 37 from ovarian cancer, Franklin’s legacy has always been left out of the pub and out of that important moment of discovery – until now. Newnham Fellow and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography, Dr Emma Mawdsley, together with local resident Norman Sanders organised a new plaque that joined the already existing one commemorating the men in 2013. It was unveiled on the sixtieth anniversary of Francis Crick and James Watson’s announcement. The new plaque thereby makes for an existing point of departure for any historian interested in Franklin, the DNA story or, indeed, the history of female scientists in the UK.

A 15 minute walk from the Eagle pub across the river and onto Sidgwick Avenue will lead you to the bustling female college of Newnham, where Franklin came to study chemistry in 1938. A bust by the sculptor Howard Bate and a postgraduate hall commemorates her memory on site, and at the Genome Centre a lecture theatre has recently been given her name. For anyone particularly interested it is worth making an appointment with Newnham College Archives to see and hold the wartime letters written from Franklin to her parents. These are moving and insightful writings that create a very different image of the woman than the one Watson and Crick painted of her as difficult and harsh.

Howard Bates, Rosalind Franklin sculpture.

Howard Bates, Rosalind Franklin sculpture.

A final Cambridge location for Franklin-enthusiasts can be found in the Churchill College archives, housed in the architecturally fascinating college designed by modernist architect Richard Sheppard. The sleek and fascinating archives houses the largest collection of Franklin’s work, images and writings. Still there is a lot of work to be done regarding Franklin’s life and legacy. By visiting Franklin’s Cambridge at the Eagle, Newnham and in the Churchill archives, the visitor will hopefully be inspired by this inspirational, important and gifted scientist who happened to be a woman in a time of men.

Rosalind Franklin images and texts from the  Churchill College Archives.

Rosalind Franklin images and texts from the Churchill College Archives.

Further information:

Brenda Maddox, The Dark Lady of DNA W.W. Norton & Co, 2000.

Jennifer Glyn, My Sister Rosalind Franklin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

The Franklin bust by Howard Bate at Newnham College, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge, CB3 9DF, UK.

The Rosalind Franklin papers at Churchill College, Storey’s Way,
Cambridge, CB3 0DS, UK.

Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham

Bowes Museum

Bowes Museum, by Alden Chadwick. Image licensed via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The Bowes Museum is the former home of John and Josephine Bowes, avid collectors of European art in the late 19th century. The building, grounds and collections are themselves worth a visit, but the draw for a historian of science and technology is the Silver Swan, an automaton the Bowes’ purchased in France in 1872. It was built by English inventor John Joseph Merlin in the late 18th century, and first recorded as an attraction at the London Mechanical Museum of James Cox.

Silver Swan at Bowes Museum

Silver Swan at Bowes Museum, by Glen Bowman. Image licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Every afternoon a curator inserts a key in the stand below the glass box where the swan sits in a nest of silver leaves; its repertoire of motions takes about 40 seconds. The swan arches its neck, peers around, and preens itself, then bends toward the water in front of it, simulated by rotating glass rods, to snatch a fish; it lifts its head with the fish, then cranes its neck to swallow it.

Unfortunately because the swan is kept in a glass box higher than (at least my) eye level, it’s difficult to get a close look at the water and the fish, which is a shame as part of the automaton’s motions include the small silver fish darting away as the swan’s beak breaks the water,. The museum has, however, developed an excellent and detailed exhibit on the history and working of the mechanism, after an extensive restoration project in 2008. This exhibit includes a great deal of technical information on how the mechanism was constructed and how it works, how it had been mistakenly restored earlier in its history, and the work involved in its 21st century restoration.

A close up of the head of the Silver Swan

A close up of the head of the Silver Swan, by David Robson. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Address: Bowes Museum Newgate Barnard Castle County Durham DL12 8NP

Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Neuchâtel, Switzerland

The mechanism of the writing boy automaton

The mechanism of the writing boy automaton

Close by the Horological Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds is the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Neuchâtel. This museum holds an outstanding collection of 18th and 19th century machines, including three automata constructed by theologian, mathematician and watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis and their colleague Jean-Frédéric Leschot in the early 1770s. These machines were exhibited all over Europe when they were first built and in the 19th century. In 2009, to celebrate their 100th year at the museum, the Musée d’art et d’histoire undertook a three year restoration project including analysis of the machines (to determine which parts were original and which had been repaired or replaced) and a systematic investigation of archive material for the first time in at least 60 years. Last year the museum hosted a symposium and exhibition, ‘Automates & Merveilles’, highlighting the restoration and research findings.

Piano-playing female automaton

Piano-playing female automaton

The Jaquet-Droz automata are two small boys sitting on four legged stools, one writing and one drawing, and a girl who plays a pipe organ. During my visit in 2009 I found the girl the most compelling and lifelike; unlike the boys, her body and head move independently of her task, and she can sit and breathe and fidget (her chest slightly rising and falling, and her head and neck making almost imperceptible movements) for an hour. Though she has no eyelids, and only her head, forearms and hands move as she plays, I found the way she looks at the keyboard eerily realistic.

Details of the piano-playing female automaton

Details of the piano-playing female automaton

The drawing boy, the simplest of the three mechanisms, uses a pencil to draw four images – King Louis, portraits of a king and queen, Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly, and a little dog with the words ‘mon toutou’. The writing boy draws the most interest from historians of science and technology, as he is often considered an early example of ‘programming’—but this is misleading, as he is no more ‘programmable’ than a printing press, which he effectively is at one remove. A wheel in his back moves cams that activate 40 different arm movements—tracing letters, making spaces on the paper, and getting more ink from the inkwell. He can write up to four preset lines on a piece of paper the size of an index card, though the mechanism is so delicate the lines have not been reprogrammed since François Mitterrand’s visit to the city.

The automata are operated three times on the first Sunday of every month, and the small theatre in which they perform is always full—21st century audiences watch with as much delight and amazement as people of two centuries ago. Private viewing sessions for small groups can also be arranged.

Address: Musée d’art et d’histoire Esplanade Leopold-Robert 1 2000 Neuchâtel

Space town, Kiruna, Sweden

Kiruna is a municipality and population centre the far north of Sweden known mostly for the large iron ore mine, the traditional Saami culture and the sublime nature, but also for the recent space physics research and space technology, and it is even referred to as ”Space Town Kiruna” by officials, media and the public.

Because Kiruna is situated in the auroral zone (aurora borealis or northern lights), it is an ideal location for doing scientific studies of the aurora. The first research station was established in the early 1900s by the lake Vassijaure close to the Norwegian border west of Kiruna. The building soon burned down and the scientific activities were later moved to a building in Abisko, further east along the railway line. Here, the activities continued into the 1940s, when it was decided that a new research station was needed. However, Abisko is still today a natural research station, with a focus on arctic science in general.

Kiruna Geophysical Observatory was established in 1957, about 8 km east of Kiruna town centre, by the E10 road close to the airport. KGO has been in operation ever since (auroral measurements actually started in 1948 at the same place). KGO has expanded and changed name to the Institute for Space Physics, also known as Kiruna Space Campus, as they are also doing teaching at university level. The institute is open for visitors. They have a restaurant and a little shop in the reception where you can buy souvenirs. You can reach it by bus from Kiruna town, alternatively rent a car or a bicycle.

In 1966, the Esrange sounding rocket range was inaugurated about 45 km east of Kiruna. Esrange is a service facility where scientists and engineers can go to perform experiments with rockets and balloons, or do satellite communications. There is a hotel there. Esrange is civilian and mostly open for the public, but a large part of the area is off limits when they do rocket launches, and an area around near the launch site is permanently fenced.

The rocket impact field is very large (5,600 sq. km) and covers the entire north of Kiruna municipality to the Norwegian and Finnish borders. You should not go there unless you are certain there is no rocket launch going on, but there are 19 security shelters scattered around the field where people can go to be protected in case there is a rocket launch going on. The area is not inhabited but the Saami people use it for their reindeer husbandry, and hunters and fishers are sometimes in the area. There are almost no roads there, but the area can be reached via the E10 and E45 roads.

The Esrange launch site

The Esrange launch site, by Gaelen Marsden. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

One of the security shelters at Esrange.

One of the security shelters at Esrange, by Gerrit. Image licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The main site of Esrange can only be reached via the E10 road, and the road to the north-east via Jukkasjärvi. It is a bit complicated to get there, because there are no public transports, so either you must rent a car or go by taxi, alternatively if you are lucky you can book a bus ride with Kiruna’s tourist information, but they only drive if there is a minimum amount of travellers. I recommend that you also phone Esrange in advance to make sure they can receive you. They have a small museum and a souvenir shop, but you must book in advance to get entrance and be guided there.

There are also other facilities in the “space town”. Some are easy to reach but others are more hidden. Scattered around in the municipality (and outside) are a number of radar antennas and large parabolic antennas. The large EISCAT dish is clearly visible from the E10 main road. The ALIS auroral imaging system consists of a number of sites around Kiruna and neighbouring municipalities.

In Kiruna town you can find a rocket monument close to the bus station. You can also find the secondary “space school” (“Rymdgymnasiet”) and a building known as the Space House (“Rymdhuset”) which also has a history of relevance to the Space Town. Just outside Kiruna town you also find the Bengt Hultqvist Observatory.

If you want to see the northern lights, Kiruna is an ideal place but keep in mind that the aurora can only be seen during the dark nights, and Kiruna has very bright summer nights (because of the midnight sun) so you must go there in the autumn, winter or spring if you want to see the aurora. In Abisko, you can find the Aurora Sky Station but the auroras can be seen from anywhere, depending on the weather and the solar magnetic activities.

While in Kiruna, you may also be interested in visiting the LKAB mine (south-west of the centre) or the Ice Hotel (on the road to Esrange). If you like wildlife or hiking, you may also be interested in the 400 km King’s Trail (”Kungsleden”) hiking track which starts in Abisko. Kiruna is a paradise for wildlife experiences.

Of related interest to historians of science and technology are also Kronogård and Nausta in Jokkmokk municipality. This is where the first rocket launch was done in 1961, with further experiments until 1964. Be warned that this is close to a military missile test range and sneaking around in the forest with a camera may not be a good idea. You don’t need to worry about this in Kiruna (other than falling rocket debris).

Further reading

Fredrick Backman, Making Place for Space : A history of “Space Town” Kiruna 1943-2000. Dissertation in History of Science and Ideas at Umeå University, Sweden, (2015).

Wormbs, Nina and Källstrand, Gustav, A Short History of Swedish Space Activities, ESA report HSR-39, Noordwijk : Eur. Space Agency, 2007.

“Swedish Space Corporation 25 years, 1972-1997”, [2013-06-29]

The Torne Valley and the flattening of the earth, Sweden and Finland

The Torne Valley on the border between Sweden and Finland played a central role in the 18th century debate on the shape of the earth. A recommended starting point is the twin town Haparanda/Tornio (Haparanda is on the Swedish side, and Tornio on the Finnish side).

In the early 18th century, there was a debate among natural philosophers regarding the true shape of the earth. Isaac Newton and his followers believed the earth was slightly flattened at the poles, while Descartes and his supporters suggested it was prolonged at the poles. In order to find out which theory was correct, the French Academy of Sciences decided to send one expedition close to the equator and another close to the north pole. Each expedition would measure the length of a degree of the meridian, and by comparing the results, it would be possible to see whether Newton or Descartes was right. The expedition to the equator ended up in Mitad del Mundo in Peru (present day Ecuador), and the northbound expedition ended up in Torne Valley in Sweden (back then Finland was part of Sweden). The expedition to Sweden took place in 1736-37 and was led by the mathematician Pierre-Luis Moreau de Maupertuis. The Swedish astronomers Anders Celsius and Anders Hellant were also involved, as well as a team of assistants and workers.

The measurement of the meridian was done by using the triangulation method which has been common in geodesy. Starting in the town of Tornio, Maupertuis and his team travelled about 106 km up the Torne valley, where they set up a triangulation network consisting of eleven observation points on mountain tops. The southernmost point was the church tower in Tornio and the northenmost point was the Kittisvaara mountain. The base line of the triangulation network was 14,5 km and was set up on the ice of the Torne River between the Luppiovaara and Aavasaksa mountains. The base line was measured using eight spruce poles, each 30 feet in length, where two teams did the measurements by using four poles each. In the rest of the triangulation network, each observation point was constructed by clear-cutting the top of each mountain and then setting up a cone-shaped signal made of barked tree trunks, so that each signal could be observed from the neighbouring observation points. The angles between the observation points were measured using quadrants. Once they had measured the base line and all angles between the obervation points, they could calculate the length of the sides of each triangle. In order to find the direction of the meridian in relation to the triangles, they used a Graham zenith sector to measure the height of a star in the constellation Dragon from the end points in Kittisvaara and Tornio.

Map showing the triangulation network

Map showing the triangulation network.
Image in Public Domain.

Torne Valley was rather sparsely populated at this time, with only a few farms along the river banks in addition to the smaller villages of Pello and Turtola. When they were not busy working, the French crew socialised with the people, and there is even a romantic aspect of this expedition –two local girls, the Planström sisters, ended up travelling to France.

Even though the scientific result of the expedition was criticized for flaws, it was still a success, and when the Torne meridian degree was compared to the one in Peru, it was in favour of Newton’s theory. To further establish the true shape of the earth, another measurement of the meridian was done between 1816 and 1855 by Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve. This time, the arc stretched from Hammerfest in Norway down to the Black Sea, including some of the same observation points which had been used by Maupertuis. In 2005, Struves geodetic arc was listed as a UNESCO world heritage.

Visitors to Torne Valley can find one monument by the church in Tornio and another monument in Kittisvaara. As a curiosity, the arms of the Finnish municipal Pello contains three stars which is a reference to the meridian measurements.

Further reading

The degree measurements by de Maupertuis in the Tornionlaakso Valley 1736-1737. [2013-06-26]

Terrall, Mary, The man who flattened the earth: Maupertuis and the sciences in the Enlightenment, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill., 2002

In addition, you may find at large libraries both Maupertuis own account of the expedition as well as the diary written by one of his crew members, Réginald Outhier. And if you can read Swedish, there is also a fictional novel by Olof Hederyd based on the fate of the two Planström sisters.

Ancient Egyptian Astronomy at the Osireion

The long entrance corridor to the Osireion, with the ceiling-less first chamber at the end

The long entrance corridor to the Osireion, with the ceiling-less first chamber at the end

The ancient Egyptians were not morbid, a statement which may seem odd when considering their many burial chambers, tombs, mortuary temples and other similar sites that remain standing in present-day Egypt. It was rather that they celebrated life so much they wanted to ensure all earthly pleasures could be enjoyed continuously in the afterlife. They believed that they could do this by elaborately depicting everyday scenes, probably very much idealized, on walls and ceilings leading up to and surrounding their place of interment. Included in these portrayals are tantalizing representations of the ancient Egyptian night sky, which give us some insight of how they interpreted the celestial sphere and the range of objects within it. Many tombs and temples have simple stars on their ceilings, but a rare few contain more complex information. Such is the Osireion.

The Osireion is a symbolic tomb for Osiris, one of the most famous ancient Egyptian gods, and is located at Abydos, a two-hour drive north of Luxor. It was discovered at the turn of the twentieth century by Flinders Petrie and Margaret Murray, and while there is disagreement of the exact age of construction it is likely to be in the late New Kingdom (1300-1100 BC). It resembles the earlier Valley of the Kings’ tombs; the original entrance is through a long sloping corridor (see Picture 1) that, via two small chambers and a sharp right-angled turn, eventually brings you to the main pillared hall. One very unusual aspect of this tomb, however, is that this hall has a moat around its outer edges. The original design used the natural level of the water table to ensure that this moat was filled, with the water representing the primeval waters of creation. Access to the hall’s floor and symbolic burial chamber at the very end of the tomb is made a little trickier than in most tombs because of this water.

There are two ceilings of astronomical interest in the Osireion. The one found in the burial chamber is perhaps the most astronomically significant ceiling discovered so far for this ancient civilization. It contains not only information about daily and annual celestial motions, but also provides specific details of the heliacal rising and disappearance dates for some of their most highly revered stars. And, if that was not enough, there are instructions on how to make a sundial. The other ceiling is a fragment of a “diagonal star table” (or DST) found on the soffit of a lintel in the corridor between the two outer chambers. A favoured interpretation by scholars is that DSTs are representations of a particular band of stars across the sky, and how this band would have appeared to move over the course of the ancient Egyptian year. The Osireion DST is the only one of about 25 DSTs that is not found on the underside of a coffin lid.

A view into the main pillared hall of the Osireion.  The green-coloured water at the bottom is a result of the rising water table level, and contains several large catfish.

A view into the main pillared hall of the Osireion. The green-coloured water at the bottom is a result of the rising water table level, and contains several large catfish

If you visit the Osireion today, you can see that the thousands of years since it was built have taken their toll on this monument. The roof of the outer chambers and main hall have collapsed, exposing the rooms so that visitors can obtain an impressive view inside the tomb (see Picture 2) while still appreciating the surrounding vista of a nearby ancient temple on one side and the desert and its sandstone hills on the other. A modern-day wooden staircase leads from the surrounding walls directly to the bottom of the pillared hall. The mysterious moat, however, has the potential to cause problems for visitors – especially if the water table has risen and blocks access to the tomb, as it had on the author’s visit (May 2013).

The site, even if partially submerged, is still impressive. A visit here would definitely also include seeing the Seti I Temple. This temple is most famous for the “Abydos King List”, a chronological list of many pharaohs’ cartouches that is of calendrical significance because it helps determine the chronology of the whole civilization. It also contains a single stone slab with the only remains of an astronomical ceiling. On the same day, you could also visit the relatively nearby Temple of Hathor at Dendera, which exhibits a number of astronomical ceilings, including a replica of the Dendera Zodiac (a replica because the original is now housed in the Louvre).

There are a wealth of fascinating astronomy-related artifacts to be seen all around Egypt, from Cairo all along the Nile to Aswan, and this article highlights just one of the author’s favourites.

Further reading

Baines, J, and Malek, J, 1989, Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Murray, M A, 1904, The Osireion at Abydos

Related website:

de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre, London Colney, Hertfordshire

The Main Hanger, De Haviland Museum

The Main Hanger – the De Havilland trainer aircraft, the Chipmunk, lies at the front, followed by the Vampire whilst the Mosquito can be seen at the back.

‘The Birthplace of the Wooden Wonder’- The de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre, London Colney, Hertfordshire

Aircraft are one of those technological creations that can stir strong emotions and reactions in people. Indeed the history of the aircraft industry simultaneously evokes a strange sense of nostalgia, heroism and glamour often shrouded in its own myths and legends as well as perpetuating them. No doubt that children’s magazines such as Modern Wonder, Eagle and Look and Learn with their intricate cross-section diagrams and action laden shots of aircraft and rockets did much to capture the imagination, particularly of boys, from an early age. In fact, the subject of the aircraft industry continues to spawn a whole host of documentaries and literature with titles such as Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World (2011) devoted to celebrating and preserving the memory of Britain’s glory days in the aircraft business with its host of fearless and glittering test pilots to match.

Behind some of the aircraft and the companies that produced them were men from typically privileged backgrounds such as Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, who used his name for the aircraft company he established in 1920 at Stag Lane, Edgware, and which later moved to Hatfield in Hertfordshire. Geoffrey de Havilland began his training at the Crystal Palace Engineering School followed by appointments designing and testing aircraft at the then Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough as well as heading design work for the Aircraft Manufacturing Company Ltd. (Airco) formed by George Holt Thomas. He later recalled his motivations as an aircraft designer in his memoirs, Sky Fever: ‘When I started on my first aeroplane the desire to do everything was almost fanatical and I felt almost a fierce resentment against outside help…I do know that the design and production of good aeroplanes has always been to me infinitely more important and rewarding than just making money’. The museum itself is located next to Salisbury Hall, a rather quaint looking country house where various personnel from the design, aerodynamics and stress departments worked on the wooden warplane, the Mosquito, otherwise affectionately known as the ‘Wooden Wonder’. Additionally, Sailsbury Hall had another role to play- it was also once the location for the De Havilland Aeronautical Technical School, the training centre for the company’s engineering and trade apprentices.

In contrast to the rather serious tones conveyed about the practice of making aircraft by Geoffrey de Havilland, the back pages of the company magazine, the De Havilland Gazette, often took to lampooning the designs and names of many of its aircraft through cartoons and jokes. One such joke revealed all the names for the business jet the DH 125 which had been turned down including Deadbeat, Dither and Delinquent. We can be rest assured that this was a Company that could ‘manufacture’ a certain degree of humour as well as aircraft and aero-engines! Visitors can also be sure to view the majority of de Havilland’s most prominent aircraft which are spread across the site. A smaller hanger is solely dedicated to displaying pre-war aircraft whilst the larger hanger houses aircraft ranging from the Mosquito to the post-war jet fighter, the Vampire, often noted by its pilots for resembling an ‘aerial kiddy car’. A further two buildings contain various de Havilland aero-engines, (a subsidiary company was established in 1944 to produce aero-engines based at Stag Lane), alongside an exhibition dedicated to detailing the history of the de Havilland Company.

B.O.A.C. memorabilia inside the Comet simulator (Author’s picture)

B.O.A.C. memorabilia inside the Comet simulator (Author’s picture)

Most interestingly, the fuselage of one of the early versions of the first commercial passenger jet airliner, the Comet, is also on display which became infamous during its service due to a series of high profile crashes as a result of metal fatigue caused by the shape of its cabin windows. Furthermore, visitors can climb into the cockpit of a simulator from a later adaption of the Comet replete with memorabilia from former airline operator British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C.). The Comet perhaps epitomized the ‘jet-age’ with its sleek and glistening metal exterior whilst it was also regarded as a prestigious hallmark of British aircraft design. The aviation weekly, Flight, even amusingly recorded: ‘the Comet has caused the American housewife to choose English China; her husband bought a Jaguar automobile, and her son asked Santa Claus for a Raleigh bike for Christmas’.

Aircraft museums certainly raise interesting questions about how aeronautics is presented to the public especially when they form one of the most archetypal museums. Like many small scale aircraft museums, it serves a mostly didactic purpose aimed at enthusiasts as well as carrying out restoration projects on aircraft. In comparison, the presentation of aircraft in national museums such as the Science Museum have long taken into consideration the need to keep a balance between providing a historical narrative about aviation and the scientific principles behind flight. It has also made sure to interweave these aspects with the aircraft and aero-engines on display. Often missing from aircraft museums, however, are aspects which deal with the design and production processes of aircraft and the amount of people this typically involved, particularly when De Havilland also extended its manufacturing operations to Canada and Australia.

Aerial view of de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre.

Aerial view of de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre, courtesy of de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre

The de Havilland Company started to come to an end as it merged with the Hawker Siddeley Group (1959) whilst its engine division went to Bristol Siddeley (1961) as a result of rationalization measures taking place within the aircraft industry. Nevertheless, the de Havilland name continues to live on around the world and it has certainly left its mark in areas such as Hatfield. Many of the road names as well as a hotel are named after de Havilland and its aircraft whilst the University of Hertfordshire also has a campus named after the Company. The de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre is just one of many aeronautical museums where you feel as if you have somehow embarked on a weird and wonderful journey to witness the continued homage to Britain’s aircraft industry and its many creations first-hand.

Further Information

‘Comets- and Transatlantic Psychology’, Flight, February 1954, p. 176

‘De Havilland Signature Page’, [Cartoon], De Havilland Gazette, No. 123, June 1961, p.120

Braun, Hans-Joachim. The Science Museum’s Aeronautics Gallery Redisplayed, Technology and Culture 36(3) (1995): 625-629. For a comparison with the Science Museum’s Aeronautics Gallery.

de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre website: [Accessed 28 May 2013]. Provides more information about the museum and the aircraft on display.

de Havilland, Geoffrey, Sky Fever. (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1979)

Edgerton, David, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation. (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991). For an overview of the organization of the aircraft industry during the war and post-war periods.

Hamilton-Paterson, James. Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft ruled the World, (London: Faber and Faber, 2011)

Sharp, Cecil Martin. DH: A History of de Havilland. (Airlife, 1982). On the history of the de Havilland Company and its aircraft.

Museum Information

Address: De Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre, Salisbury Hall, London Colney, Hertfordshire, AL2 1BU

Location: The museum is located next to Salisbury Hall at Junction 22, M25.

Website (includes opening hours):

Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum, Northern Ireland

Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

The 17th-century Market House, with 19th and 20th century additions.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum (ILC & LM) researches, preserves and interprets all aspects of the history of the Irish linen industry, Lisburn and the surrounding area.

The Assembley Room, Lisburn.

Fine Irish damask on display in the Assembly Room, Lisburn.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The Museum and its collections are housed in the old Market House, an late seventeenth-century building, since heavily modified. The town’s merchants sold their wares and produce and sought shelter in and around the ground floor of the building, and John Wesley preached here in 1756 and 1789.  The first floor Assembly Rooms played an important role in the social and political life of Lisburn, hosting regular soirees, balls, dance classes and political meetings throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Lisburn Ground Plotte

The 17th-century ground plot for Lisnagarvey (Lisburn).
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The surrounding Market Place was first laid out in Sir Fulke Conway’s plan of the town in the 1620s, and was the later site of the city’s bustling linen market. Here weavers sold vast quantities of brown, unbleached, linen. William of Orange, on his way to the Boyne, ‘took refreshments’ in Market Place in 1690, while United Irishmen swung from gallows erected here following the unsuccessful rebellion of 1798. At an entry just off nearby Castle Street, James Wallace installed Ireland’s first steam engine, from Watt’s factory in Glasgow, in 1790.

From the museum it is only a short walk to Castle Gardens. Although the original castle is no longer standing, part of the walls and the impressive seventeenth-century terrace, including the gazebo and bakery, remain. The Gardens contain a monument to Sir Richard Wallace, local MP, landowner and successor to the Conway’s, whose collection of art and that of his father’s, the 4th Marquess of Hertford, largely makes up the Wallace Collection.

Island Spinning Company

Poster for the Island Spinning Co., Lisburn.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

Castle Gardens affords a panoramic view of much of Lisburn  and the wider Lagan Valley, and it is possible to pick out remnants of the region’s industrial past. Just east of the Gardens, for example, lies the former site of the Vitriol chemical works (c.1760-c.1840) and later the Island Spinning Company Ltd (1867-1983), responsible for flax spinning and thread making.  The island, bounded by the River Lagan in the north and the canal in the south, is now occupied by Lisburn City Council, but the lock, through which over 180, 000 tons of linen, coal and dry goods travelled every year, remains.

Coulson's Factory

Coulson’s factory, Linenhall Street.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

Nearby, also, is the site of the iconic Coulson’s factory. From 1766 up until the 1960s the company, housed in a distinctive thatched building, produced fine damask linen, which was exported internationally. Coulson’s received Royal patronage in 1811, and a gold medal for their linen napkins and tablecloths at the Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace (1851).

Hilden Mill

The Barbour’s Hilden Mill today.
© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

South east of Castle Gardens, and just over a mile east of the Island, is the site of the Hilden mill complex, at one stage the world’s largest linen thread mill.  Owned and operated by the Barbour family, in some form, from 1842 to the 1960s, the complex is a patchwork of workshops for spinning and the production of linen thread. The Barbour family, in the tradition of many nineteenth-century industrialists, built a model village, consisting of housing, a school and a community hall, to support their workforce.  Although abandoned, the mill is still standing, and provides a glimpse back into the Lagan Valley’s industrial past. A short distance away is Glenmore bleach green. In constant use from the eighteenth century, the green was used to treat – through the use of sulphuric acid, and an extended drying period in the sun – the brown, untreated, linen. In 1887 the site at Glenmore, under the ownership of Richardson, Sons & Owden turned out over 300,000 linen webs.

Glenmore Bleech Green

Drying linen at Glenmore Bleech Green.  Image in the public domain.

Lisburn's Flax to Fabric

‘Flax to Fabric’: A weaver’s cottage.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

A thorough overview of the Barbour family, a sample of  Coulson’s damask linen, or indeed the broader history of the linen industry in the Lagan Valley, is provided at the ILC & LM’s permanent ‘Flax to Fabric’ exhibition. Visitors are guided through the history of linen and its manufacturer, from its use in Egyptian burial rites, its biblical significance – fine linen is mentioned in Genesis – right through to its cultivation in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Irish linen industry developed under various political and technological pressures, and the influence of English landlords, Dutch spinning techniques, Quaker labour and Huguenot self-promotion, is outlined in the exhibition. A recreated 18th-century cottage scene gives visitors a sense of the lives of workers in Ulster’s domestic linen industry before industrialisation. The entire family was involved in the process. Women spun the flax into yarn – visitors can try this for themselves – while children wound it onto bobbins. Weaving was left to the men, and usually took place in a separate part of the cottage. The ILC & LM have a workshop dedicated to weaving, with a full-time staff operating a series of looms, including two Jacquard looms. Jacquard’s design was revolutionary, significantly speeding up the weaving process, and his innovative use of punched cards to control individual threads of the warp allowed complex damask patterns to be wove. His invention was an important influence on Charles Babbage, and the Jacquard system is viewed as a ‘first-step’ towards the development of the modern computer. Demonstrations are given daily.

Jacquard LOom

Jacquard Looms in the weaving workshop. Note the mechanism for reading the punched card on top.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

Sybil Connolly

An original Sybil Connolly creation.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The linen industry played an important role in the geographical, social and industrial heritage of Ulster, and this is explored through presentations of The Wee Blue Blossom, a 1930’s film examining the traditional harvesting and spinning of flax, and The Irish Interlude (1955), a nostalgic look at industrial-life in post-War Belfast. Irish linen was sold worldwide, and the Museum houses a collection of some of the finest samples, including a piece of intricate damask woven at Coulson’s to commemorate Queen Victoria and Albert’s 1849 visit to Belfast, as well as fine embroidered muslin from the prestigious Belfast retailers Robinson & Cleaver. The work of Sybil Connolly, once Ireland’s leading clothes designer, is also celebrated in a display that shows off a number of her linen creations. Her work was worn by the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth and Liz Taylor.

The Market House gallery hosts regular displays and exhibitions on local history, from the Titanic to ‘17th-century Lisburn’, or even highlights from the Museum’s collections in the ‘Curator’s Choice’. The ILC & LM has a dedicated library and research service, and its education officers run a range of free workshops for school groups, colleges and community organisations.

Visitor information:

The museum is open 9-5pm Monday to Saturday, and admission is free. Group tours of the museum and Castle Gardens can be arranged.  The Museum shop sells a wide range of linen and craft goods, as well as books on the history of the industry and the Lisburn area.

For more information visit:

Further reading:

Collins, Brenda (1994) Flax to Fabric: the Story of Irish Linen. Lisburn: Lisburn Borough Council.

Mackey, Brian (2000) Lisburn: the Town and its People 1873-1973. Belfast: Blackstaff.

McCutcheon, William (1984). The industrial archaeology of Northern Ireland. Antrim: Greystone Press.

Kew Observatory, Richmond

Side view of Kew Observatory

Side view of Kew Observatory

Kew Observatory is close to the River Thames in the Old Deer Park, Richmond, Surrey. It is not open to the public, but can be viewed through the metal gates to its enclosure from the end of a road leading to it through the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Club. (Beware of flying golf balls!) In the middle years of the nineteenth century Kew was a major centre for research into Sun-Earth connections, geomagnetism and meteorology and from 1900 to 1902 it was briefly the first home of the National Physical Laboratory, now at Teddington.

On 3 June 1769 the second transit of Venus of the eighteenth century occurred. This event was partially visible from the UK and King George III commissioned the building of the observatory in the Old Deer Park. On 3 June the sky cleared just in time for the transit. The King, Demainbray and a small group of others successfully observed the ingress of Venus onto the Sun’s disc. In the 1770s Kew was the site of the successful testing of John Harrison’s marine chronometer that enabled sailors to find their longitude at sea.

In 1841 the government decided to stop maintaining the observatory and offered the use of the building to the Royal Society. In March 1842 the Royal Society turned down the government’s offer, but by then the Royal Society had a rival in the form of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), who quickly made moves to acquire it. Under the BAAS, Kew Observatory was soon re-established, initially concentrating on meteorology. The main mover and shaker behind the scenes at Kew under the BAAS was the geophysicist and Royal Artillery officer Edward Sabine. As well as meteorology, in the 1840s he gradually introduced geomagnetic research at Kew as the BAAS’s limited budget allowed.

The Sun and its influence on the Earth

Soon after Kew was acquired by the BAAS, German amateur astronomer Heinrich Schwabe discovered that the number of spots seen on the Sun varies in a cycle of approximately 10 years. In the early 1850s Sabine discovered that Schwabe’s sunspot cycle exactly matched a 10-year cycle of variations in Earth’s magnetic field. Astronomers quickly became interested in observing the Sun. In 1856 the printer, chemist and amateur astronomer Warren De La Rue designed a ‘photoheliograph’, a special telescope for recording photographic images of the Sun. This was used at Kew to take daily solar images from 1859 until the early 1870s. Solar activity was measured by working out the total surface area of the Sun covered by sunspots on the photographs.

In 1859 Kew played an important role in discovering a connection between what are now known as solar flares and disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field. On 1 September of that year the magnetometers at Kew recorded a brief but very noticeable jump in the Earth’s magnetic field at exactly the same time as a flare was observed by two amateur astronomers.

In 1860 the photoheliograph was briefly removed from Kew to a site in Spain, where De La Rue used it to take some of the first good pictures of a total solar eclipse. He used these images to show that prominences are part of the Sun and do not, as some believed, belong to the Moon.

Meteorology and the National Physical Laboratory

Ever since it was acquired by the BAAS in 1842, meteorology was a major part of the observational programme at Kew. Systematic records were kept of the main meteorological phenomena such as temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity and experiments were made in using automatic instruments to record the weather.

Meteorology itself underwent major changes in the years after 1852. In 1854 the Board of Trade established a ‘Meteorological Department’, now known as the Met Office, initially to provide weather information to ships at sea. From the earliest days of the Met Office, Kew was vital to its work. It became the Office’s central observatory, from which its best observations were obtained. Instruments to be used on board ships were sent to Kew for testing, to ensure they all complied with the same standard of accuracy. The testing of instruments became a major part of the work at Kew, especially towards the end of the century. From the 1870s instruments verified at Kew bore a distinctive monogram, which became an international symbol of instrument quality.

Meanwhile, the BAAS was finding Kew an increasingly expensive drain on its limited finances and so in 1870 it was taken over by the Royal Society. In the 1890s calls intensified for a national physical laboratory for calibrating instruments on a large scale and establishing standards of measurement. Kew Observatory, with its existing calibration programme, was the obvious location and the National Physical Laboratory was officially established there in 1900. However, the building soon proved to be too cramped for the purpose and local residents objected to new buildings going up in the Old Deer Park, so a new site had to be found. In 1902 the laboratory was moved to new premises at Bushy House, Teddington, the headquarters of the NPL today.

Kew Observatory in the 20th century and beyond

The solar programme was moved to Greenwich in 1873 and geomagnetic observations were discontinued in 1925. In 1910 the observatory was taken over by the Met Office and it remained a major observatory and research station in meteorology for much of the twentieth century. Sadly, government cutbacks forced the Met Office to close down operations at Kew at the end of 1980. Until 2011 the building was leased by the Crown Estate (its original owner) to the holding company of Autoglass, who used it as offices. Now (2013) it is about to be converted and modernised inside, before being sold as a kind of millionaire’s dream property. As a listed building, however, its external appearance cannot be significantly altered.

Further Reading

Cawood, John, 1979. The Magnetic Crusade: Science and Politics in Early Victorian Britain. Isis 70, 492-518.

Clark, Stuart, 2007. The Sun Kings. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Howarth, O J R, 1922. The British Association for the Advancement of Science: A Retrospect. 1831-1921. London: BAAS. (A second edition was published in 1931.)

Jacobs, L, 1969. The 200-Years’ Story of Kew Observatory. Meteorological Magazine, 98, 162-171.

Magnello, Eileen, 2000. A Century of Measurement: An Illustrated History of the National Physical Laboratory. Canopus Publishing.

Scott, Robert Henry, 1885. The History of the Kew Observatory. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 39, 37-86.

Walker, Malcolm, 2012. History of the Meteorological Office. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.